DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) Kyle Petty was never among the biggest fans of Darlington Raceway, once saying the big oval should be filled with water and turned into a stadium-sized bathtub.
Still, the longtime NASCAR racer and NBC TV broadcaster never understood the Southern 500 leaving its historic spot on Labor Day weekend after 2003. That ends this year with the ”Lady in Black” again being run over summer’s closing holiday. Petty couldn’t be happier about it.
”I remember when they moved it, and honestly, I was ticked, and that’s putting that politely,” Petty said.
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Petty never did well at Darlington – no wins and just five top-10 finishes in 51 career events – by he knows well the significance of its place as NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway.
For Petty and much of the NASCAR garage, Darlington was a touchstone of the past in an era where bigger and flashier has typically edged out older, now shuttered venues like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham on the circuit. Darlington appeared headed for a similar fate a decade ago with its signature event gone.
Instead, the raceway will play a significant role in setting the field for this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
”In a throwaway society, I think we need traditions to live, and this was a tradition,” he said. ”It was a tradition of this sport. It was part of the cornerstone of this sport.”
Most of the weekend will be a celebration of the past: 32 NASCAR teams will run some type of retro paint scheme on their cars for Sunday’s race.
”The response we got from everyone as soon as we told them was amazing,” Darlington president Chip Wile said.
Darlington organizers have kept the track vibrant the past dozen years, running successfully at night on Mother’s Day weekend from 2005 through 2013. A year ago, Darlington’s spring race was moved to April as NASCAR realigned things to allow a return to September for the track too tough to tame.
”From a driver’s perspective, when they put the Southern 500 on a trophy, it doesn’t matter what date it is,” said Kevin Harvick, who won the last Southern 500 in April 2014. ”But I think when you step back and look at the nostalgia of the race, it brings a different aspect to it.”
Also enhancing the race is the desperation factor for race teams. There are only two events left to make it in the 16-driver Chase.
”It’s tough when you’re needing to steal a win to get in,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., one of the three Roush Fenway Racing drivers outside the top 16.
Darlington has long been a track whose quirky turns – the 1.366-mile layout is shaped like an egg instead of a symmetrical oval – mean all drivers will run against the wall and struggle at times to fit back in line.
That means tempers will rise through the night. Harvick and Kyle Busch had a memorable dustup in the pit area after the 2011 race where Harvick left his car and reached into Busch’s car. Busch eventually bumped aside Harvick’s driverless car and pulled away.
A year later, crews for Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman scrummed in the pits after their drivers tangled with each other on the track.
”Darlington always brings out the best is us drivers as far as tempers flaring,” Aric Almirola said ”It’s such a challenging race track. It’s a draining race track, not just physically, but mentally just trying to keep that focus.”